Watching the Detectives: Early Space History

By The History Detectives Team
21 June 2010
Category: Experts

Dr. Roger Launius, senior curator in the Division of Space History at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C, shares his thoughts about the space-themed episode of History Detectives. If you have a space history question for Dr. Launius, post it in the comments space below.

I enjoyed watching the “History Detectives” episode relating to the early history of spaceflight. The first segment, dealing with Project Echo, was fascinating. As the story makes clear, NASA pursued the Echo project as its first communications satellite.

Many spaceflight advocates, led by Arthur C. Clarke, recognized from the 1940s onward that spacecraft would make excellent platforms for relaying signals between various points on the Earth. Clarke initially envisioned something as complex as a space station to do this work, but over time the concept became simpler and more elegant, to the extent that they are ubiquitous today and our modern communications systems would not work without them. Since the more modern approach to satellite communications—active repeaters with encoded signals—was too complex for the technology NASA built the Echo spacecract as a small, passive satellite that would serve, like the Moon which had already been used for that purpose, as a surface on which to bounce and relay radio signals.

The giant, 100 foot Mylar coated balloon, Echo-1 was launched from Cape Canaveral on May 13, 1960, but never reached its full orbital altitude because the Thor-Delta launch vehicle’s second stage misfired. It remained in orbit only a few months. Other tests and experiments followed and this episode uncovers the history of one such test that exploded. What is now known as Echo-2 was launched on January 25, 1964, from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, and was successful. But by that time the first active repeater satellites, led by Telstar 1 that entered orbit in 1962, made continued work on passive systems obsolete.

For anyone who might like to know more about Project Echo, I recommend Donald C. Elder, Out From Behind the Eight Ball: A History of Project Echo (Univelt, Inc., 1995).
The second story in this episode is just as interesting. The first point to be made about Apollo is fundamentally about responding to Cold War with the Soviet Union and that everything about it was essentially war by another means. This means that the U.S. was willing to expend enormous resources to accomplish the goal of besting the Soviets in a race to the Moon. The magnetic boot that was presumably built to facilitate spacewalks in zero gravity for the Gemini program apparently represented a blind alley that one NASA contractor pursued to aid astronauts and was never used in spaceflight.

This is not the first instance of envisioning magnetic boots for astronauts. The 1950 feature film, “Destination Moon,” used magnetic boots for astronauts. That was fiction, of course, but an interesting envisioning of a possible future. There are many aspects to protecting an astronaut in space and facilitating work in zero gravity. For a fascinating discussion of spacesuits, see Amanda Young, Spacesuits: Within the Collections of the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum (powerHouse Books, 2009).

In terms of the commemorative art piece that was the focus of the final segment of this episode, while I have no knowledge of this incident of placing an object on the Apollo 12 Lunar Module, it has certainly been common to include small items in spacecraft, both human and robotic versions, for many years. For example, as recently as 2006 when the New Horizons space probe was launched to Pluto and the Kuiper Belt. It carried several souvenirs from Earth, including some of the remains of Clyde Tombaugh (1906-1997), discoverer of Pluto, and a piece of SpaceShipOne (the Ansari X-Prize winner that is on display at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C).

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